The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad - Margaret AtwoodThe Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus – Margaret Atwood
Canangate Myths, 2005
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I see what you did there, Margaret Atwood. You are slowly worming your way into my brain and convincing me that women’s stories deserve to be heard, especially those that have been doubly forgotten. (Um, as if I needed any convincing, but it is nice to see it “in action” so to speak). And you do it so eloquently.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

“Now that I’m dead I know everything”. This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true. I know only a few factoids that I didn’t know before. Death is much too high a price to pay for the satisfaction of curiosity, needless to say.

Since being dead – since achieving this state of bonelessness, liplessness, beastlessness – I’ve learned some things I would rather not know, as one does when listening at windows or opening other people’s letters. You think you’d like to read minds? Think again.

The Penelopiad is the story of Penelope and Odysseus – although I really feel that subtitle is deceiving; this is the story of Penelope – retold by Penelope, interchanged with a chorus of the twelve maids that were hanged when Odysseus returned, from the perspective of the afterlife, or, you might even say, from a contemporary perspective, as Penelope appeals to what the readers would be familiar with, when she tries to explain her story, the setting, and her decisions.

Atwood makes it pretty clear in the short introduction accompanying this retelling, that she did not want to offer the story of Penelope as the perfect and faithful wife, who waited for her husband to return from battle in the Trojan war, even when rumours kept reaching her that he was sleeping with other women on his way home. I imagine that in Atwood’s vision these stories cast both Penelope and the maids as women without agency, held up by men as examples of bad or good behaviour, but unable to tell their own version of the stories. Penelope as the victim of the stories told about her, while the twelve maids are the victim of their untold stories. Or am I oversimplifying things? I do not know, I have not read the”original” myth (it feels a bit weird to refer to one version of a myth as the original – I meant, of course, the version of Homer).

So what Atwood gives us is Penelope’s version of her story. She has watched her story being told and retold over the centuries, and now she’s given us her version. What stands out in her version is that it is as if she’s constantly defending herself, as to some unknown listener. She defends her actions, she feigns (?) or tells of (?) her innocence, her purity, her faithfulness. At the same time, the chorus of maids offer a counterpoint to Penelope’s version of events. They offer a less innocent picture of Penelope. They also offer a window into their own world, the world of girls who are not “royalty”. This is where class and gender intersect. This is where Atwood had me most interested.

Overall, The Penelopiad  was interesting. It was a short read, and a read that kept me engaged the whole time. The change in format, especially the different formats used by the maids to get their version of events across, shook me awake from the overall rhythm, in a way that worked really well for the most part. Nevertheless, my engagement was no feverish turning of the pages, as it was when I read The Song of Achilles, but I enjoyed it well enough.

(Have you discovered a theme in my posts yet? It’s “let’s start with the retellings instead of the originals” – week)

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13 thoughts on “The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

  1. sakura

    I thought Atwood’s treatment of Penelope’s tale was fresh and clever and I really enjoyed reading it. I’m currently reading The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason which was recommended to me by readers of my blog and it’s proving to be very absorbing.

    Reply
  2. Laura

    You are slowly worming your way into my brain and convincing me that women’s stories deserve to be heard, especially those that have been doubly forgotten.
    Oh yes, I love that about Atwood! And I love stories told from the “other” point of view. Great review and I can’t wait to read this.

    Reply
  3. Word Lily

    I had noticed that theme, yes. :p I’ve yet to try Atwood, I’m a little intimidated (and afraid she’ll be too dark for me). I’m thrilled you’re posting so many reviews! Way to go, catching up something fierce!

    Reply
  4. Elena

    I love this review, Iris! I am such a huge Atwood fan mainly because as you say, she thinks “women’s stories deserve to be heard, especially those that have been doubly forgotten.” So do I. There is a cultural silence regarding women in general and the worst thing is we are not aware of that silence. Who can say the name of a female mathematician? A female scientist? A female architect? Atwood is aware of this silence and makes us be aware of how we are almost blind and deaf to it.

    If you like the stories of historical women forgotten by history, I highly recommend you “Agora” a 2009 movie by Alejandro Amenabar and starring Rachel Weisz that tells the story of Hypatia, the philosopher and mathermatician living in 4th century Alexandria. Another silenced woman whose story is an inspiration. Please let me know if you watch it, it is one of my favourite movies ever and Amenabar makes me proud of being Spanish.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1186830/

    Reply
  5. aartichapati

    I really enjoyed this one, too! I’ve only read two books by Atwood, but from what I can tell, The Penelopiad is very different than the others are. I want to read Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin, too.

    Reply
  6. Jenny

    Sakura mentioned The Lost Books of the Odyssey, so I just want to take a moment to put in a plug for that. It’s so, so good. It’s not a plot-driven book — more like a collection of vignettey short stories — but it’s a perfect companion to the Iliad & the Odyssey (which you should definitely read because they are glorious).

    Reply
  7. Joanna @ CreateYourWorld

    I read this (and loved the story from Penelope’s perspective) before I read The Odyssey and now I think I need to re-read. I also keep meaning to pick up the other titles in the series The Penelopiad is part of. So many interesting things going on in the book world!

    Reply
  8. Simon T

    Gosh, I had no idea so many of us had read it! I did like it, much more than The Handmaid’s Tale, but I wish I knew enough about the original to compare them properly.

    Reply
  9. buriedinprint

    The first time that I read this, I hadn’t read Homer’s version, but I did read his version last summer before re-reading this version (there is a lovely illustrated version of the traditional version too…thanks for linking to the series of posts that I did on these three, including Atwood’s!). It definitely added something to my re-reading of Penelope’s version, but, ironically, more because of what was NOT said about her experience in the traditional version, rather than what was….because she is confined to a few lines, really. I love retellings, and I look forward to catching up to other posts you made in this series!

    Reply

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